Hello there seekers of nutritional freedom and leanness. In this article I want to take a look at a paradigm that we’ve all heard hundreds of times before. At school, in the media, from government and nutritional institutions, from our doctors, and even in the local cafe or restaurant when you overhear people chatting about the latest dieting revelation or why their friend is as fat as ever.
…….”A calorie is a calorie, regardless of where it comes from…..blah blah”
In my last article, I discussed why diets fail, and that obesity is a multi-factorial disease, and that there are many facets involved. In this article I’m going to consider the question: Are all calories the same? . Now, to pre-appease the naysayers, I’m NOT talking about the burning of foodstuffs in a ‘bomb calorimeter’ in a laboratory. If you need to know more about this, and about calories in general, this Wiki article covers it.
Nah, ultimately we are (or should be) interested in whether the calorie count of a food on the nutrition label of a packet is all you need to care about when you eat the stuff?
To me, and a lot of the research seems to agree, that simplistic view of what defines a calorie is fine and dandy for the evil scientist in his lab, with bubbling test tubes, mad laughter and a desire to make us eat more of his food-like substances. Not quite as relevant once we’ve stuffed it down our throats and our bodies start to do their stuff. I’m going to argue that all calories are not created equal, and it’s about time that this misaligned perception is kicked into the long grass, once and for all.
With this concept firmly implanted in the heads of, well, just about EVERYONE, we are led to the belief that if a calorie really is just a calorie, regardless of source, then just eating less of the mo-fos, or burning more of them with increased activity is going to get us lean, lithe, nimble and healthy.
Problem with that oversimplification of how the body balances energy intake and expenditure, is that that it’s just not true. Yeah, yeah, I know, the first law of thermodynamics says that in a closed system total energy remains constant so can neither be produced or destroyed, it just changes into something else.
Rudolf Clausius had a fair point, based on Isaac Newton’s ‘discovery’ of thermodynamcis a lot earlier, but trying to shoehorn it into an organism as complex as the human body creates a range of problem, problems that are doing nothing to further the general populace’s understanding of what to eat, what not to eat
The widely held view, one that permeates every section of society is that if you eat it and don’t burn it, it’s gonna get stored, most likely on your ass or love handles 🙁 This viewpoint puts the focus on HOW MUCH you put down your pie-hole, and HOW MUCH activity you do to burn those ingested calories. So, your weight gain is down to YOU. You’re a glutton or a sloth, usually both. According to this conventional view, the truth about weight gain and obesity is…
“IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT!!!”
So, you’re to blame..great! Your personal choices have put you in this oft desperate position, where your health is impacted, your life expectancy is likely shortened, your peers look at you with disdain, people nudge each other in the street, and you feel like a piece of useless crap.
The Centre For Disease Control (CDC) have well documented information that over the past 25 years or so, caloric intake in Americans has risen, to the tune of a 187 cal/day increase for males, and a 335 cal/day increase for the ladies. Want to read more about that? CLICK HERE TO ACCESS THE STUDY
This is attributed to the huge increase in the availability of sugary drinks, junk food, and a reduction in the consumption of fruit and veggies. This drop in consumption of those foods has also led to a decrease in the intake of dietary fibre (I’m English, that IS the way you spell it 🙂 )
On the energy expenditure side, video games, an increasingly sedentary work life (for some), more TV time are purported to be responsible for the the ‘energy expenditure’ deficit that is fuelling the increase in obesity.
The unfortunate result of this brainwashing is that society now views obesity as a ‘personal responsibility’ thing, and those folks that are afflicted with the condition buy into it. Why wouldn’t they? It’s the prevailing view. Everyone from government heads, health service media outlets, the press, fitness magazines, your family doctor, the guy down the street, your kid’s teachers, and even your spouse believes it. So they must be right, and you MUST surely be a greedy, lazy fat pig right? But, at least you’re in control. If it’s personal choice, that empowers you to at some point, even after dozens of failures, you’ll find the holy grail and regain your body, health, and self esteem.
Obesity is considered a lifestyle problem, not a multi-faceted, complicated endocrinological one. As far as the big business around weight loss and dieting goes, that’s a good thing. They want to keep it that way.
I mean, if weight gain and obesity are proven to be a condition of biochemistry rather than personal choice, how are these businesses going to continue to sell you shakes, memberships, real replacements, fat blocking pills, low fat and low calorie food choices, gym memberships that you use for a month and have to pay for for the rest of the year?
I live in the UK, and Slimmer’s World is big over here. Posters for support groups adorn the shop windows and lamp posts, people almost see it as a charity, but it’s a business for sure. And they are making a barrow load of money out of offering dreams for people that are never delivered for most. Even the people that lose a huge amount of weight often regain it all within a couple of years.
I’ve created calorie restricted programs for people myself, setting daily calories and macros, with good results in many cases. Because people are crying out for a quick solution to their problem, I joined the bandwagon of nutrition and weight loss consultants who gave them what they wanted. I never did it with malice, or with a ‘get their money quick’ motivation. I truly wanted to help, and I did, but it always played on my mind. How were they doing a year later…or two.
I, like many (most?) other nutrition coaches was focusing on the wrong thing. Quick results, satisfied customers, gone and almost forgotten.
Diet books adorn the Amazon Kindle Store, most written by people just trying to cash in on the fact that overweight people are desperate for a solution. Many of those books are ghost written by someone else, just pulling information via Google searches and rewriting it, making a quick buck, then onto the next book. Of course, there are some awesome books written on the subject, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
Then there is the politically correct ‘fat is fab’ people, telling us how you can be fat and healthy, love your body, feel great. I’m all for having a more genuine representation of society in magazines, on the catwalks, in movies, and YES, being obese or overweight shouldn’t instil self hatred, but for many, it does, and it’s hardly surprising considering the the perceptions I’ve discussed above.
But 70-80% of obese people are metabolically sick, so although self-love is awesome, we can’t get away from the fact that being obese is not healthy….for the vast majority of people.
Back to calories after that brief excursion.
Not All Calories Are Equal When Consumed
The Thermic Effect Of Feeding (TEF)
When we eat food, or body uses energy to process it from it’s eaten form into something that can be actually used for fuel, for rebuilding you, or for storage.
The 3 macronutrients, protein, carbohydrate and fat have quite different effects on the body when consumed. Fat of course, with 9 calories per gram, needs little processing. It can be shuttled off to be used as fuel or in the rebuilding of cell membranes or a myriad other functions, or stored in fat cells as is. The energy cost of doing this is small, around 2-3% of the energy consumed. So 100 calories of fat will use around 2-3 calories to process and store it.
Protein on the other hand cause the body to use quite a bit of energy to break it down into amino acids to be used within the body. The thermic effect of eating a protein meal is in the region of 20-30%, so for every 10 calories of protein you eat, your net energy intake is only 70-80 calories
Carbs can be processed in a couple of ways, either directly for fuel or stored as glycogen in the liver or muscles, or turned into fat for storage. The TEF of storing as fat is over 20%, but much lower for using as fuel or storing as glycogen, in the region of 5-6%.
This alone shows that a calorie ingested already has a different effect on the body, due to how it has to be metabolised. This doesn’t take into account the effect the food has on blood sugar and insulin levels, a topic I’ll be discussing in another article.
If all calories were created equally, and whatever you ate was pretty irrelevant as long as energy balance was maintained, things would be a lot simpler. You’d do exercise to create an energy deficit, or you’d eat less, and weight loss would continue in a linear fashion for as long as you wanted. Fat blocking drugs would work like magic and obesity would be a distant memory.
But why doesn’t that happen. Why do people lose weight for a while and then plateau, or weight loss slows? And when they go back to eating the calories they were eating before the diet do they regain weight at such a pace?
Well, it’s because the body is not stupid, and the over-simplification of ‘calories in vs calories out’ holds little water when it comes to the complex organism that is the human body. The body is smart. When energy intake is reduced, the body rapidly reduces energy expenditure to balance expenditure with intake. It’s really not so surprising is it? That an organism built for survival through lean times and time of abundance would have some feedback mechanism to protect itself?
And further to this. The effect that calories from different sources have on the body is different. A calorie of olive oil or coconut oil has a different metabolic effect on the body to a calorie of highly processed, inflammatory seed oil. The first two have valuable properties that heal and nourish the body, the latter causes inflammation which harms the body.
A calorie of carbohydrate from a sweet potato, carrots, leafy green vegetables or some legumes will have a profoundly different metabolic effect on the body than a calorie of Pepsi or table sugar. Agree…or not? The first are consumed along with the fibre that they contain and provide useful nutrients to the body., the latter are full of fructose which has a profoundly different effect, being metabolized to fat in the liver for the most part, contributing to fatty liver disease and insulin resistance in the liver. I’m not saying the occasional sugary beverage is going to do that, the poison is in the dose, but we are consuming more and more of these empty calories that are contributing hugely towards the rise in obesity.
So, I think it would be fair to say, that a calorie burned in a laboratory to allow for a caloric number to be assigned to it is fair enough, even though once you consume it, the number is kinda irrelevant, and a calorie burned by the body, from dietary fat, starch, or from stored sources of energy, could also be a calorie burned and understood in quite a simplistic and verifiable way. It’s the bit between where it goes into your mouth and gets stored as energy that throws up the conundrum. The quality of the food we consume defines how our body metabolises it and it’s desire to burn it or store it. If we conclude this to be a reasonable assumption based on many long term studies on calorie reduction (remember the Women’s Dietary Modification Trial I talked about earlier, just one of many) then our food choices are imperative if we want to improve our health, our body composition and give our bodies what it wants and need.
The obesity epidemic began around 1977 when the McGovern report was released, which dictated the US (and the ultimately, the rest of the Western world’s thinking on nutrition). Dietary carbohydrate is the only macronutrient that has increased in the USA over the last 40 years, fat consumption fell, protein consumption stayed fairly static, but the nature of the carbs we ate changed dramatically, as cheap sources of sugar appeared and tempted the ‘food and drink’ manufacturers to , including high fructose corn syrup, a very poor use of corn indeed me feels.
As a slight side note, it’s really interesting to look at the comparison of obesity rates by country. The OECD released a report on this back in 2012, I’ve linked to it HERE
Although the stats show that in almost all the countries lists, the prevalence of being ‘overweight’ is steadily rising, the incidence of obesity (BMI of 30 and above) is really wide. Korea, it’s only around 4% of the population (similar in Japan although it’s not listed in the graphs) whereas in the USA it’s been rising like a mad thing since the late 70’s, and was sitting close to 35% in 2012, with over 60% of the population being deemed as overweight. Those are some frightening statistics right there!
Obesity rate are on the rise in Japan, but it certainly appears that, although the Japanese (and the Koreans too) have subsisted on a traditional diet that includes a lot of processed starch (I’m talking about white rice), that doesn’t seem to have affected them in the way that our highly refined carbohydrates, sugary drinks, HFCS ‘enhanced’ diet have driven our belt sizes up continuously. No country seems immune, but the countries whose cultures have kept such foodstuffs off the menu for the longest are obviously doing something right.
So if we at least consider that assigning simplistic notions of energy intake to the energy equation is potentially a little bit silly, then how about the calories out bit? Surely that’s a done deal. Well, not so much, because even if once a calorie is stored we can call it ‘just a calorie’ it’s impossible to persuade the body that if you burn an extra 3500 of those bad boys with additional activity, then you’re sure to lose a pound of the the fat stuff. Let’s discuss that in the next article.
We all need to know if weight loss is all about calories (I think you might know my view) and I sincerely hope that this article at least enlivens the sceptic in you, and leads you to look into the question, ‘Are all calories the same?’
I’d really love to hear your views on this. Please leave a constructive comment at the bottom of this article, I love to hear your views. And if you’d like to get a free book on intermittent fasting, and get updates as I post new material, sign up to my newsletter HERE.